We humans are sentient beings, filled with life energy and hope for better tomorrow. But, there are periods in our lives that our dreams and optimism are challenged by unexpected events out of our control. COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic has been one of such events that affected our lives and pushed our psyche under clouds of an existential crisis. But, behind the existential crisis caused by Coronavirus lies a silver lining, possibly once in a lifetime opportunity for life renewal with deeper connections that transcend our material existence.
Admittedly for many of us, looking for a silver lining in periods of uncertainty and anxiety may seem as hard as looking for a rainbow in pouring rain. But, we can also argue that such periods in life are exactly when our heart is most open to invite and welcome positivity and deeper connections.
We humans are unique and have many hidden potentials. We are intelligent, intuitive, and resilient beings that have overcome life challenges time and time again in our ancient and recent history. Our ancestors experienced many existential crises like wars, disasters, and famines, but always managed to heal their souls, rebuild their communities, and reconnect to life.
What is within us that makes us so resilient and gives us the ability to turn our wounds and ordeals to opportunities for healing and new beginnings? I believe this has to do with our ability to connect to one another at times of crisis and our courage to overcome ordeals and reemerge together. Our ancestors did it many times before, we can do it too.
In this post, we contemplate on the importance of existential crises in our psychological and spiritual evolution. We argue that existential crisis is a reaction of our Ego consciousness (i.e., our perceptions) to uncertainty in presence of the unknowns in life. Further, we focus on anxiety that emerges during existential crisis and argue that the anxiety is caused by one or a combination of three factors, namely the collapse of Ego, reemergence of our past psychological burdens, and lack of connections to deeper spiritual realities.
Lastly, we propose and review a set of practical actions and change of perspectives to overcome anxiety and reemerge stronger, both psychologically and spiritually. Existential crisis gives us an opportunity to understand ourselves better and renew our commitment to life at a more meaningful level.
How Do We Perceive Life?
Before we focus on existential crisis, we first need to understand how we perceive life through our “Ego Consciousness”. The term Ego has different psychological interpretations, but in simple terms, represents a level of consciousness limited to “how we perceive ourselves and the world around us”. These perceptions start forming in us from early childhood and continue through our biographical life, based on our interactions and experiences. As a result, Ego consciousness defines “who we are” based on our culture, education, job, social status, belongings, and various personal interests and characteristics.
Ego consciousness serves us well. It helps us learn from experience and manage our life affairs. It also tries to keep us ways from situations that could threaten our livelihood or psychological state. Unfortunately, Ego consciousness cannot handle existential crisis once in full effect, because its very foundation lies on preemptive avoidance of risk to assure livelihood through stability, power, and wealth. Unfortunately at times of existential crisis, all of these protections lose their effectiveness, resulting in the collapse of Ego and the rise of anxiety.
Rise Of Anxiety In Existential Crisis
We humans are naturally optimistic about our future, but there are life events that shatter this optimism. Sometimes, these events affect us to a lesser degree, for example getting sick right before going on a long-awaited vacation, or not getting the job promotion we hoped for. But, there are also times, where these unexpected events affect us at a much deeper level, for example challenging our spiritual beliefs, world views, and livelihood, thereby pushing us to a full existential crisis. Coronavirus pandemic has been one of such events and triggered existential anxiety in all of us to various degrees. Where does this anxiety come from?
When we are first born, we are biologically most vulnerable and weak. Ironically, when we get very old or approach the end of our life, our bodies are back to this vulnerable and weak state. So, the biological journey of life begins and ends with weakness and vulnerability rooted deep within us. Yet in the course of our lives, our Ego consciousness does everything in its power to run away from this weakness by chasing safety, power and wealth. That is why powerful people seek more power and rich people want more wealth.
Unfortunately in times of existential crisis, we come face-to-face with our inherent weakness and vulnerability. Our Ego consciousness fails and becomes helpless, leaving our psyche on its own devices and buried under clouds of anxiety. We can see examples of this existential anxiety in those who have thanataphobia (death anxiety) or in many cancer patients who develop anxiety and/or depression after diagnoses. No matter how rational, our self-focused Ego consciousness is unable to help us overcome anxiety during existential crisis. So, we need to change our perspectives and approach this challenge with deeper and more objective curiosity.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Wayne W. Dyer
What Is The Purpose Of Existential Crisis?
Have you ever thought, whether there could be a purpose behind all ordeals and crises we experience in life? No matter how young or old we are, we cannot deny the value of lessons we learned from each of our life experiences, including those we would rather have avoided. It seems that destiny facilitates life experiences that, in one way or another, serve an important purpose in our life journey. But, what is the purpose of painful experiences, such as existential crisis? Do they happen just to destroy our lives and make us miserable and depressed, or do they have a higher purpose or a silver lining we miss to recognize and appreciate? If there is value or high purpose in existential crisis, what is it? Let’s contemplate on this.
Have you ever noticed how you feel after recovering from a bad illness, when you step out for a walk after a long recovery? You are likely to feel a renewed sense of appreciation for the simplest things in life, for example being able to feel the breeze of fresh air on your face. The deeper our ordeals are in life, the stronger we feel rejuvenated once we overcome them. We can even view such recoveries as symbolic rebirths.
Symbolic rebirths can become more real, when recovering from a life-threatening illness or accident. For example, people who are recovered from a terminal illness or had a Near Death Experience (NDE) tend to become happier and more appreciative. They also make significant adjustments in their spiritual beliefs and guiding principles in life.
Powerful transformations and opportunities for life renewal cannot happen without the experience of crisis. So, existential crises have value and high purpose in our life. Coronavirus pandemic also presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of us to welcome transformation and life renewal toward a more meaningful and connected existence.
Maybe now, we can see the value of crises in our lives and appreciate how essential they can be to our psychological and spiritual growth. But, all of these merits remain contingent to us being able to overcome the anxiety during these crises. So, we need to understand the anxiety better and find “practical” ways to overcome it, even when the crisis is in full motion.
Overcoming Anxiety In Existential Crisis
It is totally natural to feel anxiety, when we face an imminent danger, like an army soldier does in a battlefield or when one becomes homeless without prospects of food or shelter. However from personal experience, not every state of anxiety is caused by real imminent danger. In most cases, we feel anxiety when we allow our mind (Ego consciousness) to run away with unrealistic assumptions and scenarios about future. Our mind considers everything that “could happen” to us or our loved ones. The anxiety is the “reaction of our mind” to potential adverse changes to our environment in the presence of the unknowns.
The level of anxiety we experience depends on one or combination of three factors. First is the collapse of our familiar world and how dramatically our Ego perceives this collapse. Second is our psychological state and whether we carry emotional or existential burdens from our past or childhood traumas. The last one is ideological and related to how connected we are to deeper spiritual realities beyond the material world. Let’s focus on these factors for more insights and discuss practical ways to address them.
Overcoming Anxiety Through Selfless Devotion
Anxiety can emerge from the collapse of the familiar life our Ego constructed for us. When this familiar life is disrupted by a serious illness or existential crisis, our Ego has no prior knowledge or power to deal with it. Those of us in better psychological state can simply accept and come to terms with anxiety by being rational. Similarly, those with deeper spiritual connections have an advantage here, because they believe in higher purpose and continuation of life beyond the material world. The rest of us who don’t falls in these two categories can still take positive actions to empower themselves and overcome anxiety. Let’s see what we mean by positive actions and why they are effective in overcoming anxiety.
Imagine a winning professional sport team or a strong army brigade. Where do you think their positivity, courage, and winning spirit come from? We can argue these qualities are rooted in a deep sense of connection and support among all members, a selfless devotion and personal sacrifice that everyone embraced for the good of all. Something magical happens in us, when we choose to see the world beyond just a playground for our self-preserving interests, by focusing on what we can do for others. One of the most effective way to conquer anxiety is through connectedness and practice of selfless devotion, seeing yourself as a caring mother, a father, an older sister or brother, to support your kin and the community.
You can choose to give hope and energy through donating money to charitable causes (no matter how small), sign up to volunteer an hour of two of your time to help those in need, e.g. offer to shop grocery for your elderly neighbors. You can practice connectedness by volunteering in an animal shelter or hugging an old tree in your neighborhood. You can choose to smile when you see others, send messages of hope and courage to people, wherever you go.
Hope and positively are far more powerful and contagious than anxiety. If we step out of our little worlds for a moment and take any of these positive actions, we will soon see our anxiety evaporates and is replaced with strength and positivity that we never thought possible. We don’t have to be spiritual or psychologically solid to care or give. All we need is to allow our focus to step out of our little personal worlds and connect to Nature and humanity that need our selfless presence more than ever.
Overcoming Anxiety Through Cultivation of “Self Energy”
We all carry psychological and emotional burdens to various degrees, due to our past experiences or childhood traumas. These burdens, in one way or another, are reminiscent of insecurities and vulnerabilities we experienced in the past. For example, if we experienced rejection as a child, we may not be able to build deep connections to others or feel appreciated by them. Our past psychological burdens usually resurface at times of existential crisis and push us further into a state of anxiety or even depression.
So, we all have a responsibility to identify and heal these burdens, not only because we want to be stronger and be more present in life, but also to understand and connect to ourselves and others at a much deeper level. The good news is that there are effective and practical ways to unburden and empower ourselves. One of such approaches is Internal Family System (IFS) Self Leadership explained in more details in my blog post IFS Self-Leadership: A Primer of Basic Concepts.
IFS Self-Leadership is one of the most effective ways to overcome anxiety, because its process facilitates the activation of a source of energy and inner wisdom deep within all of us. This source is called “Self Energy” and, when embodied, can manifest connectedness, curiosity, courage, compassion, calmness, and other positive virtues within us, leaving no room for anxiety. For example, we feel more positive, when we volunteer or connect to others with curiosity or compassion, because through these actions we embody Self Energy.
Self Energy helps us heal our past emotional burdens, awakens inner wisdom and peace within us, thereby leaving no room for anxiety to co-exist. We can cultivate Self Energy through practice of IFS Self Leadership.
Overcoming Anxiety Through Connection to Spiritual Realities
In the course of our life, there come times, when we question the purpose of our existence and what life is all about. At times of existential crisis, when our familiar life is turned upside down, this fundamental question demands a deeper answer. It is irresistible for a rational and curious mind not to question the meaning of life, specially when it is threatened by forces outside of its control.
If we look around, we notice that people with deeper connection to spirituality seem to have a better chance of overcoming ordeals in life. Is that because they practice a religion or a belief system, or are there deeper and more meaningful reasons? What happens to us when we have deeper connection to spiritual realities?
To become spiritually enlighten, one must believe in a few key elements that are mostly common in different branches of spirituality. First is the knowledge that the reality and thereby our existence are not limited to the material world. In other words, our existence as consciousness continues beyond the end of physical life. Second is the belief in the existence of a divine wisdom (e.g. Heavenly Father, Mother Earth, Christ, Godhead, Buddha, Source, etc.), where everything emanates from. We are all connected to the divine wisdom and are destined to return to it. This belief also gives a higher purpose to what we do in this life, as it is considered a path toward the divine wisdom. Third is a call to surrender to whatever challenges life presents to us. Self-surrender is considered most critical in one’s path toward spiritual enlightenment.
We can see how these key spiritual elements can help us overcome anxiety during existential crisis, irrespective of belief system we adapt. For example, the belief in continuation of consciousness (through soul or spirit) beyond the material world diminishes the overwhelming existential fear in crises. Similarly, embracing self-surrender makes us less focused on our self-serving desires and more connected and compassionate to others. This also helps us embody Self Energy, we described earlier, which keeps our psyche in harmony and free from anxiety.
We can experience deep psychological and spiritual transformations, if we initiate or renew our connection to deeper spiritual realities. These transformations can turn our existential fear and anxiety to courage, positivity, and compassion in service of others more in need. Spirituality can also be as simple as connecting to Nature and its life-nourishing energy, or meditating to become more mindful and connected to higher sources of consciousness, accessible from within us.
Periods of existential crisis, such as Coronavirus pandemic, turn our familiar world upside down and push our psyche toward a state of anxiety and even depression. However, human history has shown that positive and life-promoting personal and social transformations also begin when such crises are in full effect. For example, after a war, people usually become more considerate, generous, and appreciative of their peaceful co-existence. Similarly, Coronavirus pandemic has a silver lining, which is the opportunity for reflection and much-needed life renewal with greater sense of purpose and direction.
Only in existential crisis, we learn that there is more to life than pursuit of desire, wealth, and power. We get the opportunity to experience the healing power of selfless devotion and sacrifice. We learn to witness the fact that through connecting to others and deeper spiritual realities, we become empowered as individuals and in spirit. These experiences shift our collective consciousness toward connectedness, healing, and love that are much-needed in our ever-alienating technological world.
“In the flame of love, all fear is consumed.”